Marcus K. Dowling takes a look at the influence of West Indian sound system culture on the birth of the UK acid house scene and the development of UK dance music.
As the story goes, in the summer of 1987, a quartet of white, funk-adoring Uk DJs celebrated Paul Oakenfold’s birthday on the Spanish isle of Ibiza. While partying at Amnesia nightclub, they heard a mind-blowing, all-night set from DJ Alfredo. Eager to replicate the club’s euphoric atmosphere, the DJs brought the Balearic style back to the English underground. Acid house and its associated cousin, rave culture, would soon dominate first England, then the world. However, crucial to the story and its generational evolution is how West Indian, bass-driven sound system culture played an immense role in this “sudden” cultural development.
“[Rave culture] evolved from sound system culture, sure,” says Judge Jules. Jules was voted by DJ Mag as 1995’s best DJ in the world, during the birth of trance at the peak of ‘90s rave culture. He’s currently a DJ, entertainment lawyer, and music producer, speaking to me via Zoom while quarantined, at his kitchen table, in London. “It started off being 95% Anglo-Jamaican, to being a mix of people who were and weren’t in the know as to how to find the parties. Then, at the birth of rave, you get the influx of middle-class kids with no knowledge whatsoever of sound system culture but rather knew about a bunch of great records.”
Jules famously teamed up with DJ Norman Jay who had been putting on under-the-radar house and warehouse parties. Jay had renamed his brother Joey’s reggae sound system, previously called Great Tribulation, Good Times (so the ‘GT’s painted on the speaker boxes still matched) and played rare funk, soul, disco and hip hop. Jay had the crowd, the records, the sound system, the venues and the know-how, while Jules bought a fresh influx of white middle-class partiers as well as the required legalese – he was a law student – to deal with the Police when they showed up to break up the party.
“West Indian culture, via sound system culture, created an infrastructure that rave culture could mirror,” says Jay Strongman, a DJ-turned-author now based in Los Angeles. During the pre-acid house 80s Jay, Jules and Strongman were part of a larger culture of DJs, producers, tastemakers and partiers who achieved an impressive feat. They took the infrastructure and consumption practices established in the UK’s West Indian-borne sound system culture and morphed them into the blueprint for generations to follow. A similar process was taking place in other UK cities including Bristol, of which more below.
“Acid house and rave were just the sound system culture, turbocharged,” Judge Jules recalls. “All-night underground parties in warehouses in the cities and fields in the suburbs, mixed with the illegal drug culture ecstasy provided, that’s what caused the gap that rave moved into that existed at that time between West Indian sound system culture and big clubs.”
By the early 80s, a mix of whites and Jamaicans, Bajans, Antiguans – people with roots in the British colonies in the West Indies – were listening to booming sound systems like Norman Jay’s Good Times and Jazzie B’s Soul II Soul, playing 70s funk from James Brown, Barbara Randolph and Issac Hayes, electro and early hip hop, go go and reggae in abandoned warehouses in London’s rapidly declining industrial areas.